We visit MET AMS, a festival entirely dedicated to the metaverse

Tengbeh Kamara Kwebbelkop

An nft monkey and Chatterhead with another nft monkey.

In the Messages from the Metaverse series, VICE takes a tour of this virtual universe to see if it’s good enough to replace the physical world.

This week saw the first MET AMS festival in Westergasfabriek, one of the first major offline events entirely dedicated to the digital worlds of the metaverse. Crypto millionaires, NFT artists and virtual reality traders from all over the world got out of their computers to meet during the festival, tickets are between 289 and 899 euros (for a legendary ticket). We were also there to ask people if there is a future for virtual universes after the pandemic and the collapse of cryptocurrency prices.

Virtual universes have been the fodder of dystopian movies and books since time immemorial, but last year the metaverse suddenly seemed like so much more than science fiction: entire countries were locked down at home due to the pandemic. After months of dealing with low-tech solutions like video calls, a digital virtual reality environment suddenly sounded like a solution to a problem that didn’t exist before. Tech giant Facebook thought it was so promising that they renamed themselves “Meta” after the metaverse. NFTs have also made their way: digital certificates of ownership that could allow us to buy houses, land, clothes, art, and even boats in these virtual environments. Those NFTs use the same technologies as cryptocurrencies and prices skyrocketed in sync. Now we can go back out, and cryptocurrency prices have crashed massively: Bitcoin lost value by two-thirds and Ethereum, the second largest, even lost three-quarters of its value. The festival’s slogan “where the metaverse and reality meet” takes on a bitter aftertaste.

However, there is a cozy atmosphere at De Westergasfabriek. The audience consists of enthusiasts of the metaverse who already know themselves from the Internet, but there are also company employees who are allowed to leave the office for a day to learn all about the possibilities of virtual universes. The large round dome is divided into two areas, one for round tables and another in which all kinds of spectacular projects are exhibited. There are stalls with all kinds of NFT and crypto apps. Magnum is doing something with the Decentraland digital world, but especially the free ice creams seem to be popular. There is also a Habbo hotel stand, the iconic online world that was founded in 2000. Apparently they still exist and move with the times: they now support NFT, in collaboration with the NFT brand Cyberkong. As a result, you can walk around the Habbo hotel as a monkey doll for a fee, or with a spinning banana on your head.

There are screens where you can see digital models walking around in couture digital skin so no animals have to be killed. There’s also a VR experience that supposedly incorporates scent, but there’s a continuous line there. I manage to experience an “immersive sound” experience. In the headphones I listen to a recording of a forest with roosters. First in stereo and then as “immersive sound”. The passing truck during that second shot seems to go through my head. It is not a pleasant sound to the ear, but impressive.

In the other room, a presentation of Metafluence is a company that sells digital environments for influencers. According to its boss, Ermin Vall, in the future the metaverse will assume the function that social networks now have. There’s also a talk titled “revolution without borders,” in which activists talk about the limitless possibilities the metaverse could possibly offer for experimenting with your identity. “Don’t hesitate, you can be anything in the metaverse!” Laya Mathikshara, a 14-year-old Indian NFT artist, rejoices. Artist Fat Baby comes to the somewhat less inspiring conclusion that the majority of people in power in the metaverse, just like in the real world, are still cis white people with deep pockets. “Web3 reflects society.”

“We are monkeys who wear clothes to hide that we are monkeys…” says the presenter before the panel on scarcity and digital luxury in the metaverse. “…and we’ve always collected things. They used to be stones, now they are jpegs.” In this way, it skips a few thousand years of human civilization in which man built pyramids and cathedrals and produced fine art and haute couture. As if it were an achievement that people today pay hundreds of thousands of euros for a monkey avatar to dress up as a monkey.

In the panel, Emanuel Erdem from the platform NFT Exclusible will talk about the digital real estate he sells. “For example, we have created five luxury NFT penthouses, in which you can invite fifty people.” The moderator of the conversation is enthusiastic: “Wowowow”, he says. Erdem explains that digital worlds have limited space and that a coveted digital piece of land with a beautiful digital building can increase its value. He compares it to domain names that were heavily charged during the Internet bubble in the late 1990s. Until the bubble burst and a lot of people lost their money, but then he doesn’t say that.

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On the left, a game designer creating games for the blockchain. Correct Eleonore Blanc.

Between the stalls in the other room, I strike up a conversation with Eléonore Blanc. She has nothing to do with digital scarcity, which people like Erdem find so promising. “People want scarcity and exclusivity, which is why all kinds of boundaries are now emerging in the digital world. It shouldn’t, that goes against the spirit of cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are limitless, no matter who you are or where you live.” She doesn’t flaunt all sorts of expensive avatars or NFT art when she’s in the metaverse. “That would be like showing everyone who follows you on Instagram, but then you paid for it.” For Blanc, crypto isn’t about speculating and making a lot of money, she claims. “That is such a boring and limited conception. You have to use it. Thus, her courses regularly pay her in cryptocurrencies, and she doesn’t care that prices have now crashed massively, despite the evaporation of her money. “I go with the peaks and valleys: if things go well I spend a lot of money and if things go bad I don’t.” She thinks big clashes like this are only good. “Then it is survival of the fittestand only good companies and cryptocurrencies remain.

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NFT artist Robbin Snijders. Right Hilario Pedro of the digital clothing brand The Fabricant

Low prices also apparently have little influence on the mood of NFT artist Robbin Snijders. “I’ve been a graphic designer for dance festivals for fifteen years, making flyers and logos for DJs. When the coronavirus crisis started, we had sixty festivals on the shelves, but we had to switch to corporate assignments. I couldn’t put all my creativity into it, so I started doing NFTs.” It quickly started to do well, and his clientele includes international collectors and also many Dutch youtubers, such as bram krikeke and the pretty loud youtuber of the game Jelle van Vucht† For that reason, Robbin doesn’t mind that the Ethereum currency he gets paid in is only a quarter of the value it was at the beginning of this year, he explains. “Recognition is worth gold to me.”

The last panel of that day is about “digital assets as a viable investment”. This panel is also mostly about what still needs to be done before you actually profit from your digital assets. Farbod Sardeghian, CEO of a company that helps people invest in NFT art, says that as with the traditional financial system, the world of cryptocurrencies needs more oversight to create a safe investment climate. When the moderator of the conversation asks how more women and their capital can be attracted to the world of NFTs, Wouter Kloosterman, who deals in NFT art, says that this will probably happen soon now that the NFT craze exists as well. The paradigm has to change, everyone agrees.

chattering with bored monkey, photo by Tengbeh Kamara

Chatterbox with his bored monkey

Jordi van den Bussche, better known as his alias Kwebbelkop, is also present on this panel. Van den Bussche has amassed 15 million subscribers on his youtube channel playing and talking loudly about them. He recently bought a huge penthouse in Amsterdam and recently has a digital avatar and an NFT company. “Follow your dreams!” it is the advice he gives to the audience.

After the conversation, I spoke with Van den Bussche outside in the sun about his “digital assets.” They turn out to be more than just an investment for him. With the Bored Apes that he has, he will have access to parties for the foreseeable future. “For example, there will be one in New York next week.” Bored Apes are the best known NFTs, which, despite the fact that the value has plummeted, are still being sold on a ton per ton basis. When all the owners drop by for a drink in New York, Van den Bussche will be in illustrious company that includes Snoop Dogg, Serena Willams and her colleague Enzo Knol. And access to celebrity-filled gatherings is just one of the many joys for Bored Apes owners: “I’ve been given digital tokens, digital land, from adidas. I have something digital to get, because I have a monkey. You can get a real training suit with that.” Van den Bussche doesn’t have the monkey of his own to make money, he says. “I really like technology and movement. The metaverse that we are all building together.” He finds it a shame that for many other people it’s all about money, but he mainly sees the potential of the metaverse. “Let’s go nice do stuff and don’t get paid quickly and promote your thing to your fans and then get out.” I ask him if he likes monkeys. “I think he has enough. I wouldn’t say pretty enough to hang on the wall. It’s art in its own way.”

Van de Bussche’s latest projects revolve around digital avatars, which allow him to retire from being an influencer in the future. A computer generated clone has to do the honors. But he says that he still wouldn’t want to spend his retirement in the metaverse. “Well, the way the metaverse looks now, certainly not. Only when it’s as good as the real world, gets close to it, or gets better, will I sit there. Then you can adventure there again, go skydiving or go to Mars with friends.”

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Jeff (left) used to be a banker and now works in the crypto world. Patrick (right) works at a company that creates technology that allows him to rent NFTs.

Lost in my thoughts, I leave the Westergasterrein. I’ve had a good time: at most festivals the visions of the future don’t go beyond the hangover of the next day, whereas here I’ve talked to people who have solid faith in all kinds of things that are still fantasies, even if they have big crypto losses in the past.

The most realistic vision of the future I heard was the most dystopian: a world where the metaverse replaces social media, so you also have to buy all sorts of stuff online to look even decent. In various discussion boards, it was also said that a major player needs to step up to ensure the metaverse is easy to use, so that the masses can start using it.

Somehow I wonder why all this intelligence and all this money that is now being pumped into this future is not being used to quickly solve poverty and climate change and bring about world peace. Then humanity will not need those additional worlds, advanced social networks and new financial systems at all.

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